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Nuclear is the new black

Just when we thought it was no longer de rigueur to talk of nuclear utopias where electricity would be ‘too cheap to metre’, the atom-smashing business is all the rage again. After the PR disasters of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, lobby groups, think-tanks and public relations firms have been hard at it trying to revitalize the industry’s battered image with limited success. But increasing concerns about the threat of climate chaos caused by our fossil fuel addiction has handed the industry a lifeline. And they’ve been getting a little help from an unexpected corner.

Gaia goes nuclear

I first began to take real notice in May 2004. That month a now infamous article by scientist James Lovelock, founder of the Gaia hypothesis (which postulates that the earth acts as one super organism), was splashed across the front page of the British newspaper, The Independent. It conjured up fears of impending doom from climate change, overpopulation and deforestation. Lovelock admonished critics of the nuclear industry and their ‘irrational fear fed by Hollywood-style fiction, the Green lobbies and the media’. Their fears, he said, are unjustified, and ‘nuclear energy from its start in 1952 has proved to be the safest of all energy sources’. The environmentalist icon concluded that, ‘nuclear power is the only green solution’.

Hardly surprising from the always pro-nuclear Lovelock, but the article’s release was well timed. A number of high-profile greenies followed Lovelock’s lead with cautious, and in some cases enthusiastic, endorsement of this once reviled technology. The list of converts is startling.

Hugh Montefiore, former Bishop of Birmingham and longtime trustee of Friends of the Earth, publicly outed himself in October 2004. ‘As a theologian I believe that we have a duty to play our full part in safeguarding the future of our planet... the graveness of the consequences of global warming for the planet [has led me] to the conclusion that the solution is to make more use of nuclear energy.’

In just one year, the once reviled nuclear industry has managed to shift its image dramatically

One of the founders of Greenpeace, Patrick Moore, joined the chorus going so far as to testify in defence of nukes before the US Congress. Even the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) in Wales – ‘Europe’s leading eco-centre’ by their own reckoning – added their voice. CAT directors Paul Allen and Peter Harper (credited with coining the term ‘alternative technology’) reasoned that: ‘The worst possible nuclear disasters are not as bad as the worst possible climate change disasters.’

In just one year, the once reviled nuclear industry has managed to shift its image dramatically. This dangerous, blunt and obsolete technology is now seen as a front-runner in the race to save our climate. Fission is back in fashion and the industry is exuberant to see nuclear once again sauntering down the catwalks of power.

There's something about climate change

‘It’s not that something new and important and good has happened with nuclear, it’s that something new and important and bad has happened with climate change,’ explains US environmentalist Stewart Brand. British author and climate activist Mark Lynas echoes this sentiment: ‘If you ask me, anything is preferable to planetary climatic meltdown combined with a 1930s-style collapse into political darkness. Even nuclear power.’ It is clear that most greens that favour nuclear power are motivated less by a genuine enthusiasm than by overwhelming terror of a looming climate catastrophe. Their convictions are rooted in a desperate pessimism.

After all, the arguments against nuclear are as valid today as they were 20 years ago at the peak of the anti-nuclear movement. The technology is still extremely dangerous; relies on dwindling supplies of uranium; and remains so costly that massive government subsidies are required. It is also vulnerable to terrorism; can feed weapons proliferation; and produces volumes of toxic waste with no satisfactory storage solution.

The wind that has shifted in the industry’s favour is the desire of governments to be less reliant upon increasingly pricey oil imports from volatile regions of the world and concern over fossil-fuelled climate degradation. Many governments look set to fail to meet their meagre greenhouse-gas reduction commitments set out under the Kyoto Protocol. This shines a new and more flattering light on the nuclear power industry. Every pro-nuclear organization now touts the technology’s carbon-free credentials. The visitors centre at the Sellafield reprocessing facility on Britain’s West Cumbrian coastline, has almost as much exhibition space devoted to climate change as to nuclear science. Global warming has given the industry such a PR boost that if climate change didn’t exist, the industry would want to invent it. As British columnist George Monbiot acidly observed: ‘For 50 years, nuclear power has been a solution in search of a problem.’

Blinded by apocalypse

Given all we know about the dangers of nuclear, how can any self-respecting greenie endorse it? The answer lies in the different ways people think about extreme threats such as climate change. Rising sea-levels leading to floods and landslides; increased storm activity damaging essential infrastructure; long and sustained droughts in parts of the globe stymying food production – the potential effects read like the Book of Revelations. It’s no wonder climate campaigners sometimes perpetuate apocalyptic narratives.

This overwhelming sense of impending doom leads to a grasping at any solution no matter how harmful the consequences. For many pro-nuke greens, the threat of climate catastrophe trumps every other environmental or social concern – locking us into a state of permanent exceptionalism. Cue Lovelock: ‘We have no time to experiment with visionary energy sources; civilization is in imminent danger and has to use nuclear – the one safe, available, energy source – now, or suffer the pain soon to be inflicted by our outraged planet.’

Climate change seems to attract the kind of apocalyptic millennialists who once stood on street corners in London or New York proclaiming ‘the end of the world is nigh’. Let’s be clear, if we do nothing about climate change, the end may indeed be nigh for many by the end of this century. But to advance nuclear power as the solution is tragically shortsighted and ultimately misguided. Such a reaction seems almost inevitable if you believe that we’ve got 20-30 years before the planet is torn asunder by vicious climatic feedbacks. If the end of the world is coming to a theatre near you, you’re liable to do anything to stop it. For some greens this involves the unthinkable – going nuclear.

Whispering green nothings

But take that finger off the panic button for a moment. Is nuclear power really a solution to climate change? Nuclear power plants may not directly emit climate-damaging carbon dioxide, but if you look at the whole lifecycle of a nuclear power station its environmental credentials are pretty shaky.

The nuclear process employs energy-intensive industries dependent on vast quantities of fossil fuels. Uranium mining, enrichment and transport across the globe; the construction and decommissioning of facilities; and the processing, transport and storage of radioactive wastes. All these consume huge amounts of carbon-based energy such as oil and coal. Nuclear power simply can’t hold a candle to renewable energy technologies such as windmills and photovoltaic panels with their minimal reliance on fossil fuel use.

The Öko Institut in Germany released a 10-year study back in 1997 that found that in a full lifecycle comparison of various energy technologies, nuclear had nearly twice the carbon dioxide equivalent of wind power – even factoring-in the phenomenal difference in power output (kilowatts per hour). A more recent study factored-in the declining ratio of uranium to mined ore in rapidly dwindling uranium sources and found emissions increase as more mining, refining and transport is needed to compensate for poorer quality ore. The report concludes that overall emissions needed for nuclear power are five times higher than even the Öko Institut estimate. Every new nuclear power station creates a further demand for uranium and its attendant infrastructure, which in turn spirals energy demand upwards.

For the sake of argument, let’s look at nuclear power plants per se and ignore the lifecycle analysis (though nuclear power plants themselves release unknown quantities of greenhouse gases more powerful than carbon dioxide – such as the ozone-depleting chloro- and hydro-fluorocarbons as well as sulphur hexafluoride). How many new nuclear plants would we need to stop the worst excesses of climate change?

According to a 2002 report by Arjun Makhijani of the US-based Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER), to produce a noticeable reduction in global carbon dioxide emissions, it would be necessary to build approximately 2,000 large new nuclear reactors each with 1,000-megawatt capacity. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change outlines a scenario whereby 3,000 nuclear reactors would be needed by the year 2100. This would mean an average of 75 new nuclear reactor-builds each year for 100 years. The US National Commission on Energy estimates that its domestic nuclear-power capacity alone would need to double and possibly triple over the next 30-50 years. This would bring the US total to about 300-400 new reactors, including replacements for those reaching retirement age. And this isn’t the end of the problems.

A growing number of studies tell us that, if we were to replace outright all fossil-fuel generated electricity with nuclear, there would be enough economically viable uranium to fuel the reactors for only three to four years. After that the nuclear revolution would grind to a sudden and catastrophic halt. The long-promised and much-hyped fast-breeder plutonium reactors that eschew dependency on continuous supplies of uranium have proven both technological and economic failures. Without uranium, conventional reactors stop reacting.

Assuming all these challenges were overcome, what difference would a nuclear renaissance make to global greenhouse gas emissions? Very little it seems. Nuclear power stations serve one major useful purpose and that is to produce electricity. The percentage of global greenhouse gas emissions from world electricity production is only a small proportion of all polluting sources – about 16 per cent. This is therefore the maximum theoretical contribution that nuclear could make to our global emissions footprint assuming a total embrace of the atom. Transport, mining and manufacturing with heavy reliance on fossil fuels would continue to make up the lion’s share of the global economy’s climate-damaging emissions. Nuclear power would make no difference to nearly 85 per cent of the world’s climate-spoiling emissions. And there are other problems which will manifest as the earth gets hotter.

Too hot to handle

Nuclear would make no difference to 85 per cent of the world’s emissions

France has long been seen as the model nuclear nation – deriving over 70 per cent of its electricity supply from nearly 60 nuclear power reactors. However, in the past few years, brutal heatwaves have brought a number of stations near to closure. According to government regulations, reactors must be shut down if the ambient temperature inside rises above 50 degrees centigrade, or if the waterflow fed from local sources such as rivers and streams falls below certain limits. Facilities are also not permitted to release water back into the environment if it is above 25 degrees in order to protect local ecosystems that might be adversely affected by the heated water. In the past few years the French Government has temporarily allowed plants to breach these safety rules rather than force costly closures. As Stephane Lhomme of the anti-nuclear group Sortir du Nucléare observes, ‘France finds itself in a situation of pre-nuclear accident.’ The irony is that with global warming expected to bring hotter summers and more prolonged droughts, the nuclear industry seems unlikely to be able to cope in such overheated conditions.

Playing with fire

It is cruelly ironic that this reinvigorated debate about nuclear technology takes place at a time when we approach the 20-year anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. Thousands died, hundreds of thousands more have or will develop cancer, and an area covering much of Belarus and parts of Ukraine and Russia remains heavily contaminated. The Chernobyl catastrophe was 400 times more potent than the Hiroshima bomb. Today children are still being born with genetic defects and higher incidences of thyroid cancer and leukaemia. And the Chernobyl threat is far from over. Few realize that the majority of the reactor’s fuel is still intact and active. The concrete and steel sarcophagus covering it was never meant to be permanent. Cracks have already begun to emerge and radioactive seepage has been detected in groundwater. Alexei Yablokov, a leading Russian scientist and president of the Centre for Russian Environmental Policy, warns that a second Chernobyl disaster could be in the making without urgent repairs. ‘If it collapses, there will be no explosion, as this is not a bomb, but a pillar of dust containing irradiated (cancer-causing) particles will shoot 1.5 kilometers into the air and be spread by the wind.’ Yablokov reports that already small luminescent chain reactions have been observed as rain and snow mix with the reactor’s fuel exposed through cracks in the casing. Chernobyl stands as a stark reminder of the dangers of this arrogant technology.

The nuclear industry assures us that the disaster was a one-off event and lessons have been learned. But numerous instances of mishaps, accidents and radiation releases continue to occur all over the world.

The Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island, New York in 1997 was discovered to have been leaking plumes of radioactive tritium and cobalt-60 for nearly 12 years, unbeknownst to engineers or the local community.

The Davis-Besse plant in Ohio came close to disaster when, in 2002, boric acid ate a 16.5cm hole through a 17cm reactor-vessel head. According to the US-based Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) and the Union of Concerned Scientists: ‘If it had gotten through the remaining half-centimetre of steel that contained the coolant, a meltdown could have occurred.’

In April of this year, enough nuclear waste to ‘half-fill an Olympic-size swimming pool’ leaked from a cracked pipe at the UK Sellafield plant in Cumbria. The leak remained undetected for nearly nine months.

Just a few weeks ago in late June 2005, it came to light that radioactive waste has leaked into the Baltic Sea from corroded barrels stored at the Forsmark nuclear power plant in Sweden.

And the list goes on. The industry is mired in incompetence and disregard for safety at every stage from uranium mining to the still unresolved waste problem. Nuclear mishaps are much more commonplace than people think. A new nuclear renaissance, such as that already being seen in Asia, only introduces more risks of future accidents.

Gone with wind

In contrast to the obsessive pursuit of some ultimate techno-fix, be it fission or fusion, the real solutions are already here. While detractors will say that renewable energy technologies based on solar, wave and wind resources can never meet demand sufficiently, the truth is that they’ve never really been given a chance. While the nuclear and fossil-fuel industries have benefited from decades of exceedingly generous levels of government (read taxpayer) subsidies, renewables have barely had a look-in.

Take Europe, for example. Last year an estimated $18 billion in direct subsidies were dished out to energy companies. Of this a mere $300 million went to renewable energy technologies. Approximately $1.3 billion went to nuclear, and the rest went to fossil fuels. This does not include the generous indirect subsidies such as regulatory concessions, tax breaks and liability insurance write-offs (particularly important to the nuclear industry). Just recently the UK spent an additional $1 billion in order to prop up the bankrupt nuclear-power firm British Energy. If, however, we were to stop subsidizing fossil fuels and nuclear and shift resources into renewables, the prospects of meeting demand become far more achievable. Cut the cord on the billions likely to be spent on the internationally funded experimental fusion reactor in Cadarache, France and yet more resources would be freed up to spend on proven technologies that work now.

Despite the odds, renewables have already beat nukes in the energy game. According to the US-based Rocky Mountain Institute, in 2004 alone, small-scale renewables added 5.9 times as much net generating capacity and 2.9 times as much electricity production as nuclear power did. By 2010, renewable energy is projected to outstrip nuclear power’s energy output by 43 per cent globally.

The drive to supplant nuclear and fossil fuels must be seen in the wider context of social justice and democracy

But cutting subsidies for fossil fuels and boosting renewables is only part of the answer. Larger and more fundamental questions about the way we live, the nature of our economic system, and how we build meaningful movements for change remain. Tweaking the system to shift resources and make efficiency improvements can be beneficial, but we need to cast the net wider. It’s not enough simply to shout from the rooftops for renewables and then have them installed by the same corporations that fill our petrol tanks. Oil giants such as BP and Shell are already gaining significant market share in the solar and wind sectors respectively. By gobbling up patents on innovative technologies and sucking up research and development monies from the taxpayer, they are putting themselves in a position to influence the pace and direction of such technologies.

The drive to supplant nuclear and fossil fuels must be seen in the wider context of social justice and democracy. Corporate renewables may be great for climate change but do little to contain the threats posed by corporate power. A more radical prescription is needed.

Residents of the Scottish isle of Gigha are certainly pointing the way. Rather than rely on the central grid and the big power companies to provide their energy, the islanders have banded together to buy three wind turbines that are now being used to provide power for the island and even generate revenue by selling the excess to the grid. Gigha residents, who recently bought the island from the landlord, control the whole project and profits are reinvested into the community. Rather than relying on some polluting behemoth hundreds of miles away, the people are literally empowered. And after all, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?


Radio New Internationalist - The Dirt on Nuclear

It used to be that 'No way!'; and nuclear belonged in the same sentence. But as the international community scrambles for solutions to address the problems associated with climate change, now we're being told that nuclear energy is clean and green. Pacific commentator and campaigner Nic Maclellan joins today's team to dish up the very extensive pile of dirt on the nuclear alternative: the problems of waste that won't go away; the world-wide radioactive fallout from operational plants to date; and the sacrifice zones that have already displaced agriculture and people.

  • When the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl in the Ukraine exploded in April 1986, eight tons of radioactive ash vomited into the air. Now - 21 years since that disaster - Japanese doctor and radiobiologist Katsumi Furitsu tracks the damage across Europe to Japan.  
  • Rebecca Johnson reports on people power - from the picket line at the Faslane 365 Blockade of the Trident nuclear missile base in the United Kingdom to the recent Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty Conference in Vienna.
  • Corazon Valdez Fabros - the Secretary-General of the Nuclear Free Philippines Coalition - explains the coalition of 130 organizations that spearheaded a successful campaign against the operation of the first and only nuclear power plant in the Philippines - Bataan Nuclear Power Plant.

You'll also hear the CD Songs of the Volcano - performed by Bob Brozman and Papua New Guinea's Rabaul Stringband . It's a fitting choice following the description by Cora Fabros of how Westinghouse built a nuclear plant on the side of a volcano!

Listen now (click the play button left) or download the program (click this link)

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Climate Talks in Bangkok

BANGKOK, 2 April, 2008: This week, climate negotiators are in Bangkok hammering out a workplan which will allow them to reach a new set of agreements by the end of 2009. Contrary to some reports, the Kyoto Protocol does not end in 2012 – it is simply the end of the first commitment period and all so-called Annex 1 (mainly industrialized) countries are legally required to commit to new binding emission reductions targets.

At this early stage, the meetings are low key, but the subterranean current seems to be a continuation of Bali – the rich countries are trying to avoid their responsibilities, while the developing countries are desperately trying to get them to meet their existing commitments on mitigation, finance and technology.

The seemingly arcane discussion about the order of the workplan is key: the EU and the US want to start with a decision on global targets while the G77 and China wants to lead with decisions on finance and technology. Clearly the Annex 1 countries are keen to see some of the major emitters from the South take on ambitious, albeit voluntary, targets as part of a global package, while developing countries want to see the money and the technology on the table before they commit to anything. Given the history of international negotiations, the G77's scepticism is justified.

Away from the UN conference centre, at a panel discussion on climate justice, Witoon Permpongsacharoen – a longtime energy and anti-dam activist from Thailand – highlighted the bizarre disjuncture between the facts of the global warming and Thailand's ambitious 15 year energy plan.The Thai government projects that energy demand in the next 15 years will rise exponentially, with an average increase in peak demand of 1844 MW a year for 2007-2021, despite the fact that the average increase in peak demand in the past 15 years has been only 914 MW a year (and with an actual decline in demand in the financial-crisis years of 1998 and 1999).The plan includes nuclear, more coal and gas-fired power plants, and a huge expansion in 'biofuels' (most of which would be grown outside of Thailand in neighbouring, and much poorer, Laos, Burma and Cambodia).

Inexplicably, renewables, such as biomass, solar and small hydro, are capped at unnecessarily low levels. Witoon projects that under this extravagant energy plan, Thailand's carbon dioxide emissions would double from 2007 levels of just over 80 million tonnes to almost 160 million tonnes by 2021.Underlying this is the assumption that Thailand's economy must continue to grow, and that that growth must be fed by energy. There is no strategy to increase efficiency, reduce demand, manage supply, or maximize the potential of renewables; much less a discussion about the broader social objectives or environmental impacts of endless economic growth. There appears to be no basis for the energy plan, other than the obsession with growth, the megalomania of policy makers, and the greed of the energy industry.

Of course Thailand is not the only country where energy policy is totally out of sync with the imperatives of climate change, but the tragedy is that it need not be so. There are so many viable energy alternatives. It seems that even the reality of longer droughts, hotter summers and heavier floods does not concentrate the minds of Thailand's policy makers, but they are not alone judging from the meagre outcomes of the Bangkok climate change talks. Maybe by Friday there will be some good news.

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Australia's nuclear option

Will the world ever muster the momentum to ban nuclear weapons? Australia's Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has decided to have a jolly good stab at it.

He's announced his intention to revive the flagging (to say the least) disarmament process by launching an 'International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament'. He hopes this will 'forge a global consensus' on how to reinvigorate the 40-year-old Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) which has suffered blow after blow over the last couple of decades.

The main problem with the NPT is that part of the original 1968 deal was that the nuclear-weapons-toting states (US, USSR/Russia, France, China, Britain) would disarm. But they haven't.

There are still a chilling 27,000 nukes in the world and both Britain and the US are busily developing a new generation of warheads for battlefield use (not just as a 'deterrent'). Which doesn't exactly send a message to other countries that they shouldn't develop their own too.

Another problem is that four countries haven't signed the NPT. They are Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea - the Johnny-come-latelies to the nuclear club. Now they've got the bomb, why should they be expected to disarm if the major nuclear powers won't?

A third snag in the NPT is that it actively encourages all countries to get access to 'peaceful' nuclear technology so that they can generate nuclear power. But that's a contradiction in terms.

Nuclear energy is far from benign. It's filthy and dangerous, of course, and won't stop climate change. But what the nuclear industry is most keen to gloss over is that once a country can generate nuclear power, it then also has developed the technical know-how and capacity to produce weapons-grade plutonium, which is the tricky part of making your own WMDs.

So the NPT needs reviving, sure, but it also has some pretty fundamental flaws. What we really need is a Nuclear Weapons Convention that will ban the development, possession, use and threat of use of any kind of nuke, and provide a routemap towards a nuclear-free world. Such an agreement exists in draft form, and the international campaign to get it adopted (ICAN) has been most active so far in Australia. They've clearly already got Rudd's attention.

But is he prepared to go beyond the NPT? And can he get the big boys round the table and persuade them to part with their beloved ballistics?


The June issue of the NI magazine focuses on nuclear weapons. See my article 'The Bomb Stops Here: the world is nuking up again, to new and alarming levels. So why are disarmament campaigners so optimistic?'

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Those 27,000 Nukes

How to ban nuclear bombs and save the planet  

With just 50 of the world's 27,000 nuclear weapons having the capacity to kill an amazing 200 million people, you'd reckon that nations would thump their parliamentary tables and ban those bombs completely. After all, only nine countries have nuclear bombs. Yet despite active campaigns involving millions of people, five decades after the first nuclear bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in Japan, an international convention to ban the bomb has still not been successfully negotiated. But things are about to change. Now that Henry Kissinger and some of the other most aggressive advocates for US world military domination are arguing that the US should get rid of its nuclear weapons, the doors of Governments across the world are opening-up to disarmament. New Internationalist magazine co-editor, Jess Worth, is fresh from producing a magazine called ‘Dropping the Bomb: how to ban nukes and save the planet'. She joins today's guests for a tour of nuclear weapons; whose got them, where they're pointing, and how the people of the world are mobilizing to get rid of them.

  • The theory is that no country would dare damage a country with nuclear arms. Yet Professor Pervez Hoodbhoy - the Chairman of the Department of Physics at Quaid-e-Azam University Islamabad - argues that in practice nuclear weapons make Pakistan less secure.
  • The international campaign to abolish nuclear weapons is mushrooming. Felicity Hill - from the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom - spotlights some inspirational developments, and the politics behind them.
  • Where there's bucks to be made, there's marketing managers to spin the issues. Two media watchdog groups have just launched a new online resource to profile who's spinning nuclear power and weapons issues. Bob Burton - the managing editor of SourceWatch - spotlights some of the star performers.
As the dangers of nuclear weapons reach from one end of the planet to the other, today's CD is an international showcase of musical styles and performers from Spain to the Pacific; from Latin America to a range of African countries - Rhythm of the River.

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Japan must say no to nuclear!

Kono Taro is not a typical Japanese politician. In a culture that values consensus and moderation, Kono is outspoken and bold. But these are difficult times for Japan, with 2011’s natural and nuclear disasters compounding an already palpable sense of political and economic crisis within Japanese society. The disasters that occurred on 11 March 2011 painfully highlighted Japan’s lack of strong political leadership. Japan’s citizens are desperate for a leader with vision to lead them back to prosperity and security. Given Japan’s political current climate, Kono Taro’s moment might finally have arrived.

Kono Taro

World Economic Forum under a CC Licence

When we meet in his office in Nagatacho, the heart of Japanese government, Kono is visibly exhausted. For months, he has spent every evening in study groups composed of his parliamentary peers, investigating various areas of policy. The objective is to publish a book that will act as Kono’s personal manifesto and launch his bid to become prime minister. Top of his agenda is a radical rewriting of Japan’s energy policy.


Since the meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi last year, many Japanese citizens have become concerned about the safety of Japan’s nuclear reactors. But for Kono Taro, the Fukushima disaster was all too predictable. Kono began campaigning for an end to nuclear power on first entering parliament in 1996. Soon after he was elected, negotiations began on what would become the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. The discussions at Kyoto prompted Kono to start his own study group on energy and the environment ‘to see if the Japanese government’s policy on climate change was feasible. The government were talking about adding 20 new nuclear reactors to Japan’s existing nuclear infrastructure. After looking at the science on which the policy depended, I concluded that the government’s policy was unrealistic.’

The power industry’s hold over the media prevents Japan from engaging in a national debate on nuclear power

Kono raised his concerns over the government’s nuclear strategy at the headquarters of his party, the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP), the conservative party that ruled Japan almost continuously from 1955 until August 2009. The reaction of party elders to his questions startled Kono. ‘They asked me, “Are you a communist?” I responded, “I’m asking a legitimate question, please give me a sensible answer”, but they never did.’

Unperturbed, Kono took his concerns to the media, but was surprised to find that ‘journalists didn’t seemed interested’. The few newspaper reporters who were interested were told to drop the story by their editors. Eventually, Kono was invited to air his criticisms of Japan’s nuclear industry in a three-part television interview. ‘But the day after the first part of the interview was shown, power company representatives came to the channel’s managers and threatened to pull their sponsorship if the other two interview segments were broadcast,’ says Kono. That was seven years ago, and the rest of the interview remains unaired. A radio station that broadcast a similar interview with Kono also encountered problems with the power companies. Long after the interview, Kono was back at the radio station. ‘I ran into some of the journalists who’d interviewed me about the nuclear industry and they said as a result of my appearance they’d almost been fired.’

Legalized bribery

Kono argues that the power industry’s hold over the media prevents Japan from engaging in a national debate on nuclear power. ‘Energy companies buy huge amounts of advertising in the print and electronic media. But these companies are monopolies and don’t need to advertise to attract customers. They don’t buy advertising to sell their product, but to keep the media silent. Commercials are legalized bribery’. In Kono’s view, it is dependence on advertising revenues from the energy companies that has muffled criticism of nuclear power in the Japanese mainstream media since the Fukushima disaster.

Kono is simultaneously a conservative and a radical, a capitalist and an environmentalist, a Japanese patriot and an internationalist

Japan’s nuclear industry uses its considerable financial resources to buy political and bureaucratic support. ‘Senior officials from METI (Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry) often receive lucrative jobs in the energy sector after they retire,’ says Kono. Politicians are also part of Japan’s nuclear village. ‘Many members of the LDP receive political donations from TEPCO [owners of the Fukushima Daiichi plant]. Japanese elections are expensive. In terms of time and money, running for office is the equivalent of starting a small business,’ Kono explains. He believes the current Japanese government, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), are also beholden to the nuclear industry. ‘The DPJ is helped financially by the energy sector labour unions. The unions fear for the jobs of their members if the nuclear industry is dismantled’, he says. The labour unions’ concerns are understandable, as in Japan’s rural communities, nuclear power plants are often the main employer, with other local businesses depending on outsourcing from the plant.

Fukushima 1 Nuclear Power Plant

kawamoto takua under a CC Licence

To expose the political influence of the nuclear industry, Kono is challenging Japan’s politicians to reveal the amount they have received from the energy companies over the past 10 years. At the time of writing, no one had accepted his challenge.


Kono is one of the few politicians in Tokyo who has never taken money, or any other kind of support, from Japan’s energy companies. His reputation for integrity makes him popular with Japanese voters. At the 2005 election, Kono received the second-largest majority in Japanese electoral history. Even in August 2009, when his party lost office, Kono was returned to parliament with a healthy majority. Kono’s seemingly contradictory qualities give him appeal beyond the LDP’s usual base. He is simultaneously a conservative and a radical, a capitalist and an environmentalist, a Japanese patriot and an internationalist. Unusually for a politician, Kono is open about his ambition to lead his party and country. Unfortunately, the outspokenness that makes Kono popular with a broad spectrum of Japanese voters has led to clashes with traditionalist elements within his own party. Kono was recently sacked from the LDP shadow cabinet. In 2009, his bid for the LDP leadership was blocked by the party’s conservative hierarchy.

‘Japanese voters don’t know the power they have over politicians. This is a democracy, but the people don’t realize that they are the masters and that we politicians are the slaves’

Unsurprisingly, his rough treatment at the hands of his own party has left Kono lacking in party loyalty. To Japan’s anti-nuclear voters, Kono says: ‘At the next election, vote for a candidate who is against nuclear power, regardless of which party supports them.’ Since the Fukushima disaster, Kono has been both saddened and shocked by the sense of helplessness among ordinary voters opposed to nuclear power. ‘People ask me, “what can we do?” They genuinely don’t know how to influence the political process. This is not surprising, since the LDP was in power for more than 50 years. I tell people, “go and see your parliamentary representatives and tell them your views”. But people are surprised and say, “can we do that?” Japanese voters don’t know the power they have over politicians. This is a democracy, but the people don’t realize that they are the masters and that we politicians are the slaves.’ For Kono, this lack of public confidence partly explains why protests against nuclear power in Japan after Fukushima were so poorly attended. Another factor, according to Kono, is the history of the anti-nuclear movement in Japan. ‘In the past, a lot of leftwing groups used anti-nuclear marches as a recruitment instrument. People are therefore suspicious of protest organizers’ motives.’

Nuclear distortion

The political influence wielded by the nuclear industry is just one of several reasons why Japan’s government is reluctant to give up nuclear power. Another important factor is the warped sense of security nuclear energy brings to a country devoid of domestic sources of fossil fuels. In 1973, as oil prices rocked as a consequence of war in the Middle East, Japan’s government adopted a national energy strategy centred on nuclear power. Today, concerns over political volatility in the Middle East continue to undermine Japanese confidence in the region as a reliable source of energy. Given Japan’s historically poor relations with Russia, politicians in Tokyo are equally unwilling to rely on natural gas imports from the Russian Far East.

Nuclear power has been sold to the Japanese public as a secure ‘semi-domestic’ source of energy. But this is a distortion, according to Kono. ‘The government’s energy strategy is based on the development of fast breeder reactors, but these reactors are not yet online. They were supposed to be available by the end of the 1980s. The target was then delayed to the 1990s. But in December 1995, there was an accident involving the Monju fast breeder reactor prototype in Tsuruga. A sodium leak at the plant caused a fire, but the scale of the accident was covered up. When the extent of the accident was revealed, the plant was shut down until 2010. But soon after it was restarted, yet another accident forced it to close again. Now the government says fast breeder reactors will be ready in 2050. But this date is a fantasy. Given the massive delays, even if it does come online, the Monju fast breeder reactor won’t be commercially viable. The cost of energy generated by Monju will be so high that no-one will want to buy it.’

Nuclear energy brings a warped sense of security to a country devoid of domestic sources of fossil fuels

Kono is concerned about the safety and security of Japan’s plutonium and spent fuel. ‘The Japanese government has bought 31 tonnes of plutonium to fuel fast breeder reactors. But as these reactors are not viable, the plutonium is in storage in Rokkasho, in northern Japan. The plutonium is guarded by a private security company. They are not allowed to carry guns, so they protected themselves and the plutonium with truncheons. I asked the government what would happen if terrorists showed up in Rokkasho with machine guns. I was told, “the guards would call the police!’’’

An anti-nuclear power demonstration in Shibuya, Japan, September 2011.

t-ohashi under a CC Licence

Kono cites a US academic report suggesting that Japan’s plutonium has not been spiked in the recommended fashion to render it useless to terrorists. Kono explains, ‘you spike the plutonium with dirty radiation so it can’t be taken away. The plutonium in Japan is supposed to be spiked, but the American academics who wrote the paper say the way our plutonium is spiked is easily reversible. The energy companies think they’ll need the plutonium in the future for fast breeder reactors.’

Japan’s plutonium stock is expanding as the government runs out of space to put spent fuel from its existing reactors. ‘Japan turns out about 1,000 tonnes of spent fuel a year. The capacity of Japan’s spent fuel pools will probably be reached within the next 7 to 15 years. But it takes 20 years to test new pool sites, so we are already out of time. Finding suitable sites in a mountainous country like Japan is difficult. The waste has to be buried 300-500 metres deep. If all the pools are full, it means you can’t take the spent fuel out of the reactors. If you can’t take out the spent fuel, you can’t put in new fuel, so the reactors will stop working. The energy companies are trying to get around this problem by reprocessing the spent fuel, a process that creates plutonium. It’s a vicious circle.’

National challenge

Kono’s solution to the many problems posed by nuclear energy is a phasing out of the industry in Japan. His plan involves halting construction of any new reactors and the decommissioning of existing reactors after 40 years. Kono first suggested this plan in 1997. ‘If we’d adopted my plan then, Japan would have been nuclear free by 2037,’ he says. ‘Now it’s 2011 and I am still saying the same thing. Forty years is enough time for us to increase our stock of renewables and to improve our energy efficiency,’ he reasons.

Kono would like to make achieving 100 per cent renewable energy by 2050 a national challenge. ‘Japan has the technology, talent and determination to met this goal,’ he says. But with the current government wedded to the status quo, Japan may have to wait for Kono Taro to achieve his ambition of becoming prime minister for there to be a change in Japan’s energy policy.


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